Who doesn’t love a well told story?


Last week I used examples of David P. Morgan’s writing to suggest ways that we could tell more interesting stories about this craft.

Storytelling is an old and familiar form and also new and strange to many of us. It’s familiar to our memories and experiences. Who doesn’t love to read or listen to a well told story? And it’s strange because not many modelers are as familiar with the tools of the trade or as well equipped as a professional writer like Morgan, who studied and honed his craft over many decades of practice.

What are these tools?
Both non-fiction and fiction writers have many ways of telling a story, with fiction writers having more leeway with the literary forms they can bring to bear on a story. Non-fiction has a more stringent set of guidelines to follow, depending on the ultimate purpose of the piece. A news story is driven by the facts of the event, while a long form work such as Morgan’s magazine series in the 1950s allows for other storytelling devices such as analogy, contrast and personal reflections. Regardless of the genre, stories in general have the following: Characters, Conflict and a Resolution.

Characters Please!
A well-written story will introduce a set of characters who will take us on an adventure or help broaden our understanding of the subject. As noted last week, characters aren’t automatically human beings. They can also be objects like a steam engine or a place like the New River Gorge. How might this apply to railroad modeling? For one example, we are a character in our own story.

If we’re not part of the story then who is building the layout?


A believable character in fiction has an arc they travel. In other words he or she grows up a bit from the beginning to the end of the book. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker went from an impetuous youth to a Jedi Knight. As modelers, we also grow although perhaps not quite so dramatically. We grow into our modeling skills and in our vision with regard to what a layout is or could become. How many of us once believed something about the hobby that we no longer subscribe to? How many look back at some early model and shudder at how crude it looks now? Recognizing and sharing such growth in ourselves adds a layer of depth sorely missing in my view. Others can learn from such stories.

There’s A Conflict
Conflict in railroad modeling? I thought this was supposed to be loads of fun and all that? Conflict abounds though, for all of us. How? What about the well-worn cliche’ of I want to model the Union Pacific’s Cheyenne roundhouse and yards plus the climb up Sherman Hill in quarter-inch scale but I only have an 8×10 foot spare room to work with. As master Yoda might observe: “More space you require, Umm, yes?” It’s the conflict between I really want that but only have resources for this scenario that we all wrestle with. (Cue the music.)

There’s An Ending (Often Happy).
The action in a story must lead to a resolution of some kind. The Rebels save the galaxy; we know the facts of a situation after reading the paper and so on. In railroad modeling, the resolution is how we make peace between the realities of our resources and what we desire.

As an example of good storytelling, consider a blog series by Chris Mears about the design of a new layout he’s undertaken. Rather than inundate his readers with the normal shopping list description, Chris shared the memories of railroading that are influencing this project in a very personal way that will spark similar memories for others.

In a recent post, Chris took us on a journey as he outlined a simulated operating session he mocked up using sections of flextrack and paper track templates. Thanks to a colorful description of the train movements, his post was far more interesting than if he had just said: “I figured a three-foot long tail track at the end of my run-around would be enough for a two-unit consist and a maybe a couple of cars.” We’ve all read these dry descriptions before and they tell us little or nothing beyond the cliche’.

Much of our writing about the craft is focused on the nuts and bolts of our stuff, whether the author is describing his layout or the process of scratchbuilding a freight car. Last week I suggested this focus restricts our view of the craft in ways that tend to ignore what we bring to it as creative people.

By describing the scene and action from his memories and a railfan’s perspective, I gained a greater sense of what motivates his choices in this particular design and why. I’m better informed than I would have been with the typical I wanted this from Column A and that from Column B and a branchline from Column C and oh, a (fill in the blank) would fit in the corner nicely. I’m also reminded how similar memories, influenced my own layout decisions.

Yeah, But I Ain’t No Writer
It would be easy to misinterpret my meaning with this blog series. I’m not saying you have to become another F. Scott Fitzgerald to share the story of your layout or how you enjoy the craft. I am suggesting that there are many ways to tell those stories that we seldom consider because of the deeply entrenched this is how you write a model railroad article mindset. 

My intent here is to share my understanding of discplines like art, design and storytelling as I apply them to this craft. The reason I share these topics is that I see how much depth they add to this craft and that is inspiring to me and, I hope, to at least a few of you.

Here’s a link to Chris’s Prince Street Terminal blog and another take on what Chris is doing from Trevor Marshall

And they all lived happily ever after.